Spotlight – Omar Morsy

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Omar Morsy is an animation supervisor at MPC. His feature credits include Blade Runner 2049 and Justice League, and he lists Wonder Woman and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle as being among his recent personal career highlights.

Omar Morsy

CINEFEX: How did you get started in the business, Omar?

OMAR MORSY: I’ve always wanted to be an animator. I would watch the old Disney films on VHS and hit play-pause-play-pause to study every frame of any shot I loved. I was animation director at a big videogame company when a friend of mine asked me to join the team at Mokko Studio to animate an alien Doberman on Riddick. After a decade working on AAA games, I wanted a change, so I jumped at the opportunity.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

OMAR MORSY: Creating animations that I know will live forever. It’s great to think that 100 years from now, people will still have access to my work.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

OMAR MORSY: Animating 83 spaceships flying around and attacking each other in outer space. What a mess!

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

OMAR MORSY: Animating a rabbit peeing on a folding chair.

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

OMAR MORSY: When I first started animating back in 1997, it really was a male-dominated field. Things have changed so much now. The animation team has never been closer to 50/50. MPC is one of the studios that is really trying to address diversity imbalances.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

OMAR MORSY: Being able to animate complex, heavy rigs at 24 frames a second without a hiccup.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

OMAR MORSY: Understand realism! Always do your research, look at references, and make sure your work is as credible and as realistic as possible.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

OMAR MORSY: Terminator 2: Judgment Day – I remember watching that movie with my dad and hearing him ask, “How did they do that?” specifically when the T-1000 walks through the prison bars. Inception – I was not only blown away by the story, but I had never seen visual effects of buildings curling upwards and above. I thought it was brilliant. Riddick – because we used my dog, Tyson, as reference for the alien dog. My boy is now immortal!

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

OMAR MORSY: Beef jerky. But I have to sneak that in – shhh!

CINEFEX: Omar, thanks for your time!

Songs for the Unsung

16th Annual VES AwardsOstriches, apes, dragons and a Land of the Dead tour guide took top honors at last night’s 16th Annual Visual Effects Society awards presentation. I was lucky enough to be sitting at the Game of Thrones table, where there were big grins and much shaking of hands as the HBO series won recognition in several categories, including the granddaddy Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Episode. Its feature film corollary, Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature, went to War for the Planet of the Apes, whose visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri, also won the prestigious Georges Méliès Award for his body of work, which goes back to 1993’s Jurassic Park. Samsung’s ‘Ostrich – Do What You Can’t’ ad also won kudos, as did Pixar’s animated feature, Coco.

I was having too much fun reconnecting with old friends in the business to take copious notes, but here are a few of my off-the-top-of-my head recollections of the evening’s highlights:

Host Patton Oswalt kept the very large crowd in the Beverly Hilton Hotel laughing with a series of to-be-expected nerd jokes. He also lambasted the 1970s and 1980s musical selections that accompanied recipients on and off the stage – but the elder statesmen at my table were grooving to it. (Game of Thrones visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer enthused, “I want the soundtrack to this awards ceremony!”)

Jon Favreau’s speech as this year’s recipient of the VES’s Lifetime Achievement Award was heartfelt. The actor/writer/director seemed genuinely moved by the honor, and he noted what, to him, seemed an irony: he was receiving an award for the privilege of having learned so much from so many of the people in the room. A particularly poignant moment in his speech, for me, was his mention of someone who was not in the room, and to whom he owed so much – the late Stan Winston. As someone who knew Stan for many years and was entrusted to write the definitive book on his long career, The Winston Effect, I am always happy when Stan is remembered.

Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan with "Game of Thrones" visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer at the 16th Annual VES Awards.

Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan with “Game of Thrones” visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer at the 16th Annual VES Awards.

A filmed tribute to Joe Letteri included congratulations and remarks by James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg, all of whom showered the venerated visual effects supervisor with praise for his role in bringing films such as Avatar, The BFG, Jurassic Park and the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the screen.

Presenter Gabriel ‘Fluffy’ Iglesias, looking considerably less fluffy than he used to, impressed me. He was given the task of presenting one of the evening’s more technical awards, that for best simulations, but he had obviously taken the trouble of learning just what a simulation is. He could have just read off the teleprompter, but he went the extra mile to understand just what was being honored, and I don’t know how many celebrities would do that.

The night’s two top awards were presented by surprise guest Mark Hamill, who received a standing ovation from a crowd to whom Star Wars means so very much. Hamill was charming and self-deprecating, noting the recently instituted ‘Jedi Pension Plan,’ no doubt a reference to the recent series of Star Wars films.

Patton Oswalt said goodnight to the crowd, instructing the men to get out of their tuxes and back into their usual cargo shorts. (Patton must have visited a VFX company or two in his time, because cargo shorts are, indeed, the preferred uniform item.)

That was the evening – wish you all could have been there!

Now Showing – Cinefex 157

Cinefex 157

We’ve always had a soft spot for dragons. It began way back in 1982, when the cover girl for Cinefex 6 was Vermithrax Pejorative, the scaly star of the classic fantasy Dragonslayer.

It took 14 years and 60 issues for us to fall for another dragon. In 1996, the film was Dragonheart, and the fire-breathing beast in question was the charismatic Draco. Fast-forward to 2014, and we graced the cover of Cinefex 137 with the sinister Smaug from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Now we’re dragons all over again, with a spectacular shot from HBO’s Game of Thrones showing Daenerys Targaryen astride her flying steed, Drogon.

Cinefex dragon covers featuring Dragonslayer, Dragonheart, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and Game of Thrones

And that’s just the beginning. Cinefex 157 also contains our in-depth article on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, not to mention … well, why don’t I let our editor-in-chief, Jody Duncan, give you a guided tour of our first issue of 2018:

As the ‘Cine’ in Cinefex suggests, in our nearly 40 years we have concentrated on movie visual effects, only very rarely venturing into television. Every so often, however, a television project is so worthy of coverage, it grabs us by the lapels and shoves us out of our ‘movie’ box. Game of Thrones is just such a show, and we’ve covered its seventh season in a nearly double-length article with a lot of behind-the-scenes photos and fascinating commentary. Using wave machines to splash water onto a dressed ship sitting in a parking lot in Northern Ireland … braving the elements on a glacier in Iceland … dropping army of the dead performers into a water tank by way of a hydraulic rig … setting wagons and stunt men ablaze on a field in Spain – all the stories are here.

As if that weren’t enough for a single issue, Cinefex 157 features Joe Fordham’s coverage of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Joe is our resident ‘Star Wars’ guy, and he doesn’t disappoint. The story of Neal Scanlan’s team unpacking a box to find Stuart Freeborn’s original Yoda molds – well, that’s worth the read right there.

We follow Star Wars with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Confession time: I did not much like the original Jumanji. I remember describing it to a friend as a movie in which ‘this bad thing happens and then this bad thing happens and then this bad thing happens.’ So imagine my surprise when I guffawed all the way through Jake Kasdan’s sequel! Interviewing Jake, I immediately realized where the movie got its sense of humor. To find out where it got its visual effects pizzazz, look no further than this issue of Cinefex.

We round out the issue with our Downsizing story. Reading it reminded me of how I struggled to understand the technologies involved in bringing tiny characters to the screen for one of my earliest articles – Willow, Cinefex 35, 1988. As Joe Fordham’s Downsizing story illuminates, the technologies have changed but the same artful execution is required.

The next time we meet, spring will be in the air. Winter Is Going …

Cinefex 157 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy is already winging its way to your mailbox. And don’t forget our iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.


Spotlight – Trey Harrell

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

Trey Harrell is a visual effects supervisor, CG and lighting supervisor, and 3D generalist at Mr. X. His film credits include Tron: Legacy, Crimson Peak, The Hundred Foot Journey and, most recently, The Shape of Water.

Trey Harrell

CINEFEX: Trey, how did you get started in the business?

TREY HARRELL: I’d had nearly 20 years in the advertising world before there was a big decline between 2006 and 2009. The shake-up steeled me to send my reels out again, and I ended up as lead lighting TD on Tron: Legacy for Mr. X in Toronto.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

TREY HARRELL: Literally every skill I’ve learned over my career, from my eye, to programming pipeline and database management, to simming and lookdeving viscera. I never have the same job two days in a row. There are still days I wake up and I can’t believe I’ve made a career out of playing with monsters!

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

TREY HARRELL: My first feature began about 10 years ago with a 12-month post schedule. Some recent projects I’ve seen have five-month schedules with three in post – the demand for this type of work has increased exponentially since prestige television got added to the mix. It’s a serious quest worldwide finding talent who are up for the challenges of such compressed post schedules. Also, committee creative has always made me weep uncontrollably, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

TREY HARRELL: I think if you’ll talk with anyone at the various shops involved, you’ll find that Tron: Legacy was incredibly difficult for all of the studios from a sheer brute force perspective. It was simply a lot of intensely grueling hours. That’s different than, for example, The Shape of Water where we had to get to know the creature as well as the director and sculptors knew him, after spending years designing him in preproduction. We had to be able to look Guillermo del Toro in the eye and say with no doubt whatsoever that his eyes and face were 100% on-model in a shot. I’m not sure your body recognizes the stress any differently between the two scenarios when you’re in the moment, but with the benefit of hindsight it becomes clearer. That’s no different than any creative endeavor, though. Every single one plays out differently.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

TREY HARRELL: Well, I’ve worked with Guillermo a fair bit to date, so several of my strangest stories naturally revolve around his shows. I’ve had Robocop (Peter Weller) direct an episode of The Strain, pulling out his trumpet to riff jazz between takes – all that after I grew up on a steady diet of Cronenburg and Naked Lunch. More recently, I’ve had days-long text message chains with close friends detailing how Beauty and the Beast is okay because the beast has fur, but the idea of scales crosses an imaginary line somehow in a fantasy where the heroine has agency …

Watch a breakdown reel of Mr. X’s work on The Shape of Water:

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

TREY HARRELL: I see conversely the need to specialize more due to the sheer workload at hand versus the need – now more than ever – for generalists who can speak the language of all of the disciplines at play. The demand for quality work at the television level and the shrinking post schedule everywhere are probably the biggest changes visible day-to-day.

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

TREY HARRELL: Where to begin? I would like to see the largest software vendors throw R&D at their products like they did in the oughts. This is still not a mature industry and there’s immense room for growth. Incorporating third-party plugins annually does not justify support fees. I’d like to see post schedules level out to a manageable pace. And I’d like to see more filmmakers commit to getting as much as they can in-camera instead of shooting a scene on green with a dozen softboxes overhead and a tennis ball for eyelines – if you’re lucky – and then figuring out what the shot is later.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

TREY HARRELL: This is a production business – product and deadlines, and brute force hours will only get you so far. You’ll get one show in ten that’s special – you might dig it, critically it might be a success, or it’s just a great time working with the crew. You can’t show up for work differently on one show versus another. Also, work a job you hate for a few years before settling into a career doing something you love – perspective is important.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

TREY HARRELL: Assuming I’ve got decent gear at said festival, I’d pick a 70mm print of Blade Runner: The Final Cut to start, for sure. Popcorn cinema would come second – I’ve got a soft spot for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I’d have to cap it with something from my guilty pleasure bucket – today let’s call it Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

TREY HARRELL: It’s a toss-up between Raisinets and Sno-Caps, but I make absolutely certain to dispose of the plastic wrap before entering the theater. I die inside a little bit when every package in the cinema opens up simultaneously on the first line of dialog.

CINEFEX: Trey, thanks for your time!

Spotlight – Joe Bauer

To create cinematic illusions, you need conjurors. In this series of spotlight interviews, we ask movie magicians what makes them tick.

As production visual effects supervisor on HBO’s epic television show Game of Thrones, Joe Bauer leads teams of artists around the world to bring the fantasy realm of Westeros to life – including its ever-maturing contingent of fire-breathing dragons.

Joe Bauer

JOE BAUER: Mentally and emotionally, I started out in the industry while still living in Springfield, Missouri, at the age of 11, ogling a few minutes of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad on the Joplin channel on a snowy black and white television screen. Next was The Golden Voyage – Sinbad again – in full color in a movie theater. Then, before I knew it, I had a masters in film and was lighting miniatures on a motion control stage in Van Nuys. David Stipes made me part of his team on Star Trek: The Next Generation and then I was figuring out in- camera forced perspective shots for Elf. Now I’m the stepfather of digital dragons. Pretty normal progression really.

CINEFEX: What aspect of your job makes you grin from ear to ear?

JOE BAUER: Watching audience reactions of things I’ve worked on on YouTube.

CINEFEX: And what makes you sob uncontrollably?

JOE BAUER: The ‘mad elephant’ scene in Dumbo.

CINEFEX: What’s the most challenging task you’ve ever faced?

JOE BAUER: My first feature visual effects supervising job involved Jean-Claude van Damme, an untrained Bengal tiger, a Hong Kong wire team and the need to nuke the Roman Colosseum and, with it, a deranged character played by Mickey Rourke. My wallet had been stolen by a gypsy and I had to save per diem in order to buy a coat. The next hardest was shooting twenty stuntmen in a bullring in Spain with a 50-foot flamethrower attached to a motion control crane, in order to have actual fire for a dragon attack. I was so nervous my top lip swelled up like Donald Duck. Fortunately, the Colosseum blew up and the stunt men didn’t.

CINEFEX: And what’s the weirdest task?

JOE BAUER: Aah – should have saved my Van Damme story! Second to that might be tracking a butt-crack onto a too-shy body double, and then covering that with a bluescreen tree branch when the nudity was deemed inappropriate.

CINEFEX: What changes have you observed in your field over the years?

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) rides her dragon Drogon into battle in HBO's "Game of Thrones."

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) rides her dragon Drogon into battle in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” in this visual effects shot created by Image Engine.

JOE BAUER: How good everyone has gotten at what they do. On a show like Game of Thrones, where a tremendous volume of work must be completed in a very short time, multiple vendors of all sizes must be utilized, and across the board the technical and artistic accomplishment is shockingly consistent and staggeringly good. In the early days, only the fattest wallets and most prestigious pictures got the A-game from the relatively slim list of top talent. Now the baseline is excellence, so planning and design – and time and money, still – are what separate the great from the greater. When’s the last time you saw a matte line or a color mismatch?

CINEFEX: And what changes would you like to see?

JOE BAUER: I’d like to see the community of artists better taken care of. The skill level is that of medical professionals and yet as a specialized workforce they are still expected to live like carnival workers, except for the lucky ones under large company umbrellas. I think the community deserves organized protections, pensions and benefits. These are life choices, not summer jobs.

CINEFEX: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business?

JOE BAUER: I would say study art and photography in addition to software. If you don’t know what the real world looks like and how a camera photographs it, you’ll have no sense of how to re-create it in a visual effects shot. Even more to the point, unless you’ve seen sunlight on objects through the eyes of the greatest artists of civilization, you might miss how grand and great and emotionally affecting a particular shot can be constructed. There’s no harm in making each and every visual effects shot a masterwork.

CINEFEX: If you were to host a mini-festival of your three favorite effects movies, what would you put on the bill, and why?

JOE BAUER: Star Wars, Jurassic Park and the 1933 King Kong. Runners-up would be George Pal’s The War of the Worlds and MGM’s Forbidden Planet. I think those would display fine art, wild imagination, industriousness and determination in the face of obstacles. Nothing is handed to you in the business of telling stories with memorable visuals, and yet the end result needs to seem as if it has always been. Those movies, among many others before and since, display those qualities, whether using rubber and steel or pixels.

CINEFEX: What’s your favorite movie theater snack?

JOE BAUER: Salted popcorn

CINEFEX: Joe, thanks for your time!

Watch the trailer for Games of Thrones Season 7: